» 12/10/2007 15:17
Elections: restrictions and limits on non-Muslims
by Qaiser Felix
After a long period of discrimination since 2002 non-Muslims can vote for both reserved and non reserved seats. But Islamic parties do not want candidates from other religious groups and non-Muslims are reluctant to run against Muslims. For experts this is the crux of Pakistani democracy.
Islamabad (AsiaNews) – Returning officers have accepted nomination papers submitted by 12,443 candidates (including 143 non-Muslim running for 33 reserved seats) to run in the 8 January 2008 national and provincial elections. They will be competing for 1,070 seats in the National assembly and the four provincial assemblies. Another 916 nomination papers were rejected, including those of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and of former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.
In 1985 then military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, introduced a system of separate confessional electorates for five groups (Muslims, Christians, Hindu, Ahmadiya as well as Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsees grouped together). Each group was reserved a certain number of seats and were not allowed to vote for candidates from other groups.
This system, which marginalises religious minorities (who can elect only a few lawmakers), was modified in January 2002 when President Pervez Musharraf promised non Muslims that they would be able to vote for Muslim candidates in their respective ridings.
The president also increased the number of seats in the National Assembly to 342 and those in four provincial assemblies to a combined total of 728, but he failed to increase the number of minority-reserved seats despite their overall growth since 1985.
In the beginning the decision was welcomed as a first step on the road to building a non-confessional secular political culture since it would force Muslim candidates to seek non-Muslim support for non-reserved seats.
In practice Muslim parties have refrained from nominating non-Muslim candidates and very few non-Muslim candidates and parties have tried to run for non-reserved seats.
What is more for years non-Muslims have asked to no avail for the right to be elected in the 100-seat Senate, where 34 seats are reserved for technocrats, women and ulemas (Muslim scholars), but no one from other religions.
Observers point out that the representativeness of the country’s different assemblies is symptomatic of how the Muslim majority views other religious groups.